I’ve been spending lots of time reading the awesome Natalie Reed just lately. Her blog is full of coolness and good writing and awesome resources for gender egalitarians, freethinkers, and nerds alike, but as my bloggy thing is about books that have dragons and spaceships, I mostly feel qualified to comment only on the latter subject. Being a lefty radical and all (because apparently “hey, maybe people should receive equal treatment and opportunity regardless of identity and we should all just enjoy pudding together” is a radical statement), I do try and talk about representation of everyone in both the authorship and the fictional universes of the nerd-book world.
And yet I find I haven’t talked about trans characters anywhere here. And while I certainly accept my own culpability in being unconsciously cissexist like a jerk, there’s, uh, kind of a paucity of such characters out there. I’ve reviewed a lot of progressive, inclusive authors here and I’ve covered LGB back and forth a few times, but nothing in the Trans or even genderqueer bit of the spectrum.
Of course, gender variance is relatively rare, but there are a lot of books and a lot of stories out there. Folklore is full of characters who move between binary assignments or just hang out in the middle or somewhere else entirely. Coyote has a detachable penis! Which isn’t really all that relevant, since male manifestations of Coyote usually take it off just to bother someone with it, but it’s pretty badass, isn’t it? I’d like one.
I can think of lots of trans characters in anime and manga, which could be a great analysis and reflects rather poorly on the culture I live in (though the depiction is usually still a bit problematic). I’ve never reviewed any of this stuff because there are far more qualified individuals and I don’t think I could analyze in any useful detail. And I usually find light novels to be very bland in translation. From my early teens, Noriko of Fushigi Yuugi. stands out in my memory. Noriko was mostly a badass, confident lady, capable of passing without but confident enough once she got outed by an evil something or other (despite the fact that the revelation was couched in terms of “really a man,” so yuck). Late in the series there was a pretty pointless revelation that she had decided to be female after her little sister died and “as a man” she… blah. It would have made sense if Noriko was actually bigender or something, but I don’t give the manga-ka that much credit. She was this truely terrible writer and world-builder who accidentally wrote a great supporting cast only to kill them off for the mild dramatic benefit of her horrible, horrible main characters.
But as to spec-fic novels of the sort I usually review? Well, I can think of two examples, one awesome despite many issues, one interesting but odd.
As I just review Christopher Moore’s new book, another old favorite of mine is on my mind. Island of the Sequined Love Nun features Kimi, a confident, awesome trans woman of color, unashamed sex worker, survivor of human trafficking, violence, and abuse, and probably the only halfway competent individual in the main cast. The narration insists on using male pronouns for Kimi, which is annoying and stupid, and the male lead’s initial response to her is, “Oh, hey, a sexy lady to whom I’m attracted! …Oh, ew, that’s a dude in a dress.” They’re respectful friends later on, but the story doesn’t try not to other her. Feels more like unthinking cissexism than the hateful kind, but that’s still not okay. It’s also noteworthy that Kimi speaks oddly broken English. Since I think English isn’t her first language, that’s fine, but very few of the other characters with English as second language do it, and the result is more like “me love you long time” than any permutations of dialect I’ve heard. And Kimi (spoiler time!) doesn’t survive the book, but admittedly most of the characters don’t, and Kimi gets to appear as a perfectly contented ghost/deity later on. It… kind of makes sense in context. Is Kimi disposable because she’s trans or because there’s lots of dying and it just happens? I dunno. It’s debatable.
However, Kimi has a talking, fashion-forward fruit bat for her sidekick, which makes her the coolest ever.
The other trans character I can think of (and the pool here is “books I’ve read and can think of,” so this isn’t necessarily diagnostic) is Tamir in Lynn Flewelling’s creepy fantasy trilogy, the Tamir Trilogy. I love these books, and the only criticism that immediately occurs is that there wasn’t exactly a need to invoke magic to write a story about a person whose gender is other than what was assigned them as a baby. But if using fantasy to deal with real issues is against the rules, say goodbye to Drow. It’s an interesting story whatever the case.
Tamir is, far more literally than is usually the case, a girl in a boy’s body. Her dead brother’s body, actually. Yeah, it’s a terrifying story, actually, but that’s beside the point. In any case, scary magic results in a little girl growing up with the body of a little boy. Tamir, as Tobin, is fiercely remonstrated for liking girly things, so as to keep up the charade and raise a respectable little lordling. She performs masculinity fiercely throughout childhood and young adulthood, dealing as best she can with her lack of interest in girls as sexual partners, being in love with her male best friend, her ease in bonding with girls as friends, her need to see women as equal despite vicious demands that she act otherwise, and so on. Not all of this necessarily has anything to do with gender expression or identity, but to Tamir it certainly seems to set her apart. There’s a lot of gender-fuckery in these books, with LGB characters as well and repeated questions about what’s essential to gender and what’s constructed, what’s enforced on Tamir from outside and what’s all her. She finds her female body initially more alien than she did her male body, once magic happens again. Maybe that’s a side effect of being magic-trans instead of the regular kind?
So it’s not perfect, but it’s interesting, and Flewelling seems to me to handle Tamir well.
And, of course, not every trans person is out and it’s not necessarily going to be relevant to the plot, and lots of fictional characters could be trans that we don’t know about or need to. Maybe Spock is trans. That’d be cool. Maybe The Incomparable Dejah Thoris. Maybe Jesus.
But we could use some more. Really. (And, um, I brought up Jesus and detachable penis in the same post, for which I feel there should be some kind of award.)